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MBPT Spotlight: ‘Idol’ Changes, the Search for Breakout Hits: Media Agency Execs Weigh In on Upfront Moves (Part Two)

(This is part two of a series of questions addressed by a panel of media agency executives. The first part appeared in Tuesday’s MBPT newsletter, and can be accessed here.)

The broadcast networks announced their new fall schedules at their upfront presentations recently, and as is the case every year at this time, everyone has an opinion on those new shows and the ways each network will try to draw in more viewers for the new season. But as usual, one thing of paramount importance to the networks is what the media agencies think, and what advice they give to their marketer clients who are in the process of spending billions on commercial time during the upfront buying process that’s now underway.

MBPT gathered four veteran media agency programming research executives and tossed 10 questions at them based on some of the key network moves. The execs are: Brian Hughes, senior VP, audience analysis, MagnaGlobal; Sam Armando, senior VP and director, SMGx Strategic Intelligence; Billie Gold, VP, director of buying/programming research at Carat; and Brad Adgate, senior VP, director of research, Horizon Media.

Part one of this article covered the Blacklist move, programming shifts at The CW, diversity programming and more.

Fox has said it is cutting back on the number of hours for American Idol next season from close to 60 back down to 37, and is also going to revise the format of the show. Even doing that, will it be enough to stem the mass viewer losses that the series has endured over the past two seasons? And how much longer will Idol be able to stay on the air? Can it continue to hold up as well as CBS reality series Survivor has?

Brian Hughes: I don’t think there’s any way to stop the decline at this point, only slow it. The Voice is simply viewers’ preferred singing competition at this point, even though Idol was the forerunner in the space. It’s a bit different from Survivor, which remained the standout amidst the lookalike shows that came and went over the years. It’s hard to say how much longer it has—even with the declines, it’s still among Fox’s top performers. That being said, I thought they would get another season or two out of X Factor before it got canceled.

Sam Armando:Idol will likely continue to erode, but implementing an appealing change can potentially help slow the bleeding. Because we don’t know of the changes, it’s difficult to predict if they will help. Despite this, if Idol remains competitive in its time slot and produces a rating that continues to exceed Fox’s overall prime average, there is no reason to take it off the air. I’m sure they don’t mind selling a show that delivers a 2.7 adults 18-49 C3 average rating.

Brad Adgate: Cutting back on Idol telecasts should help build some demand back to the show and boost ratings. A similar strategy worked for ABC with Dancing With the Stars, which was in its ratings a bit this year. If ratings continue to plummet for Idol like they have in the past two seasons, then I think the next recourse is cancellation.

Billie Gold: I believe this coming season may be the last for American Idol as I think it will see further deterioration next season no matter what they do to the format. Over the past few years viewers have gotten barraged with music competition shows after Idol’s success and it was just too much. When The Voice arrived, it was fresh and different and the judges really sparked, so viewers turned their attention towards the new kid. I think viewers can’t commit to all these competitions and The Voice is newer and fresher—even though it also saw some ratings loss as this past season went on. Survivor has also lost audience over the years but because it doesn’t have as much competition in terms of similar shows it has held up better. It will be interesting to see if Fox’s new survival show Utopiatakes off, and if it does, how that may affect Survivor.

Some of the network entertainment chiefs have said lead-ins are very important as part of the scheduling process, but there are many in the ad buying community who believe that, with so much fragmentation in viewing today, lead-in protection is no longer that relevant. What do you say?

Hughes: There’s no question that lead-ins can still have a strong halo effect—just consider Revolution on NBC after it was moved from leading out of The Voice on NBC. Despite how viewing habits have changed, the bulk of TV consumption is still live. Ultimately, though, a strong lead-in can’t carry a show forever, and at some point it will have to live or die on its own merits.

Armando: If lead-in is not important, explain The Blacklist. In addition, there is a reason why Chicago Fire pulled in an adult 18-49 rating nearly 28% better this season when it followed The Voice. While the lead-in does not easily translate to rating success throughout a night, from a scheduling process, it still makes sense. If you attracted a specific audience to open a night, why not try to offer content that will keep them throughout? Yes, given options, people do not hesitate to change the channel, but why encourage them to do so?

Adgate: Audience flow is still a factor but obviously it’s becoming less and less important each season with all the on-demand availabilities, along with counter programming scheduling and more choices available on cable. But I can see the CBS rationale on Sunday that will go from 60 Minutes to Madam Secretary to TheGood Wife in the new season.

Gold: Lead-ins are less important than in year’s past thanks to TV Everywhere, but a strong lead-in is certainly still important to getting a new show sampled to a bigger audience. I am not sure the audience levels of shows like CBS’ The Millers or NBC’s About a Boy would have been as big if it wasn’t for the fact that their lead-ins were huge ratings grabbers. There’s a reason why networks with the Super Bowl launch their best shows or biggest prospects after the most watched event of the year, and that is for the show to have the biggest lead-in possible to give it the best sampling. That’s not to say that a show is guaranteed to maintain its sampling as weeks progress. So while it’s true that viewers will still tune in to a good show on a weak schedule and DVR a show that they want to see, lead-in is still a big factor in many cases.

Do you see any breakout hits from all the new programming the broadcast networks have introduced for next season? And how much harder is it to develop a breakout hit with all the viewer fragmentation and choices they now have?

Hughes: I almost feel like “breakout hit” is an antiquated term. The average adult 18-49 rating in primetime is now under 2.0, so anything that comes in above that consistently is going to look good, but to me, “breakout” would mean high-single digits week after week, which just doesn’t happen anymore. Certainly, fragmentation plays a major role in that, and that’s why we have to not only consider a show’s life outside of the live telecast—on-demand, social—but how to diversify our video investments so that we’re reaching our customers.

Armando: The main issue is defining a hit. Sleepy Hollow was not a hit in the sense it pulled in huge ratings, but it took a weak time period for Fox and improved it immensely. There are several shows in the various lineups that can deliver similar results. I have not watched all the pilots to properly gauge if any of the shows will be huge, universal hits. I do applaud some of the innovative story lines and/or themes. There were some big swings taken and while we may look back on some and shake our heads, it’s good to see an effort.

Adgate: The threshold of a breakout hit gets harder and harder. I think on Fox Empire looks different and so does Mulaney, and each of those series could bring in new viewers. On CBS, Battle Creek and Stalker are both different from the usual CBS shows and could bring in new audiences. On NBC, drama State of Affairs and sitcom Marry Me have a good chance for success. ABC’s best new shows look like drama How to Get Away With Murder and sitcom Black-ish. I also like the chances of TheFlash on The CW.

Gold: There are a couple of shows that look promising but there is nothing that has blown me away. ABC’s Black-ish and midseason drama Secrets & Lies look like they have potential, while CBS has their spinoffs that will likely have a built-in audience. NBC has State of Affairs that has a chance to do well. Fox has Gotham, which could be its biggest success, while the CW has The Flash. So each network has at least one show that may pop for them. Still, it’s much harder for a show to truly pop these days with all the increased competition from cable, Netflix and other outlets. What we consider a “hit” today is certainly a far cry from what we expected from a “hit” show a few years ago.

What will be the first broadcast primetime series canceled? Or another way of asking, what series among those announced should not make it on the air this season?

Hughes: I’m going to plead the fifth on this one.

Armando: While we are aware of the ratings for new shows once they air, that is only one part of the cancellation puzzle. Behind-the-scenes cast problems or poor script development play an equally important role, but we are not aware that such issues may exist. As a result, handicapping the fate of shows is more and more difficult. Remember, the impact it has on the time period vs. the actual rating itself is sometimes more important.

Adgate: The first series canceled could be Selfie on ABC.

Gold: Many of the comedies we saw did not look at all promising to say the least. Selfie, ManhattanLove Story, Bad Judge, A to Z, Marry Me, The McCarthys and Cristela all may not see a second season…and some may not even see November. As for the dramas, nothing looked awful but ABC’s Forever will definitely not last forever and The CW’s Jane the Virgin may not swim through the whole season. As for Fox’s Red Band Society, I’m not sure how many people want to watch kids with cancer in a pediatric hospital…even if it’s a positive message in the end.

Overall, how do you rate the broadcast networks’ development for next season compared to their development for the just-ended 2013-14 season in terms of quality?

Hughes: When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, it gets harder and harder to make those sorts of judgments. In the end, 70% or more of these shows will be canceled, regardless of what I think. But here are three trends that I think are worth watching: 1, more of an effort to reach multicultural audiences; 2, more “events” and closed-ended 10- 12-hour series; and 3, more new product in general. We didn’t hear a lot about midseason scheduling this year, and I think that’s because the networks want to remain flexible.

Armando: I thought there was more quality in the programming this year vs. last. It seemed less reliant on big names and more emphasis was put on stories and characters. Last year a lot of press went to Michael J. Fox, Robin Williams, Sean Hayes and Rebel Wilson, whereas this year a lot of talk is on content and story lines.

Adgate: All the broadcast networks continue to invest more heavily in content and the rules of broadcast TV are changing with more year-round programming, less reruns and more limited-run series. The winner this coming season will be the viewer who overall will have a better selection of programming to choose from.

Gold: I think the networks try hard each season to put forth their best, and this coming season will not be unlike last season, with both being rated fair. This past season we saw The Blacklist break out but most other freshman shows that the networks brought back were not what you would call blockbuster hits. This coming season looks to have some shows with promise, but as always many shows will quickly fade after their premiere week debuts. The shows that will likely get the most buzz are CW’s The Flash and Fox’s Gotham due to the nature of the audience of “superhero” legends, but you never know which shows might pop socially as we get closer to the season. As for me, I can’t say there’s that one show that I’m looking forward to the way I felt when I saw the ABC Lost pilot for the first time a few years ago. I’m still waiting for that feeling again.